Nineteen years ago Tuesday, the Drudge Report introduced the world to Monica Lewinsky and changed journalism forever. Now, at a time when sensationalism and salacious headlines are again dominating the news, the media industry is confronting one of the toughest challenges it has faced at any time since: how to cover President Trump.
Clearly emboldened by the media malpractice that defined much of 2016, Trump has been testing journalists on a near-daily basis since winning the election. He has attempted to manipulate press coverage through early-morning Twitter rampages, trumped up job-creation announcements and, most recently, the farcical news conference he convened last week, the ostensible purpose of which was to discuss how he’ll avoid conflicts of interest in his business dealings. (Spoiler: He won’t.) Taking questions from reporters for the first time since July, Trump marked the occasion by berating news organizations for running stories he didn’t like about his campaign’s purported coordination with Russia.
In fairness, BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the unverified contents of a sensationalistic dossier compiled by a former British intelligence official detailing Trump’s alleged Russian contacts was a matter of legitimate disagreement among journalists. But the whole spectacle was also a timely reminder that the media, like the rest of the country, are entering uncharted territory as Trump assumes the presidency. And in this brave new world, if we hope to succeed in holding power to account, we’re going to have to step up our game.
Last week, members of alternative media outlets published a manifesto for accountability journalism in the Trump era. Noting that “our jobs as journalists have gotten more difficult and more critical,” they offered several principles that all members of the fourth estate would be wise to consider, including a few that demand special attention.
First, as Trump and the Republican Congress rush to advance right-wing policies, it will be important for the media to rededicate itself to covering the issues. The country can’t afford a repeat of 2016, when the three major nightly newscasts, reveling in the high drama of the campaign, devoted barely half an hour of their combined election coverage to actual policy issues. Rather than obsessing over partisan posturing or Trump’s latest tweets, holding the new administration accountable will require a commitment to real, on-the-ground reporting — the kind that reveals how actual Americans will get sick and suffer if their health insurance is taken away, for example, or how blue-collar workers will be abused if labor protections are eviscerated.
But that kind of deep reporting from the heartland and inner cities alike shouldn’t be limited to coverage of the policies coming out of Washington. Bringing more attention to local issues, which are too often overlooked, is no less essential. As the media have become more fragmented and conglomeratized, the gutting of local newsrooms in recent years has resulted in too many Americans who are uninformed about what is happening in their communities and too many political commentators who are disconnected from ordinary citizens. “When there are fewer reporters watching statehouses, local courts and corporate boardrooms — and when there are not enough journalists talking with ordinary people — we end up with a pundit class that is profoundly out of touch,” the authors of the manifesto write.
As part of that on-the-ground coverage, I also hope to see more serious attention paid to emerging social movements and voices of dissent nationwide. In today’s media environment, grass-roots protest movements are too often sensationalized, as Black Lives Matter has been at times, or simply ignored. Telling the story of the Trump presidency, however, also requires telling the stories of the many activists who are collectively rising up in opposition to him. And while reporters will presumably have their eyes on the Women’s March and other inauguration-related events, there will be more demonstrations of dissent around the country that deserve our attention in the weeks and months ahead.
By seeking out a diverse array of perspectives, journalists can avoid the “pack mentality” that, as media critic Michael Massing has argued, contributed to the “massive institutional failure” of news organizations in 2016. To function properly, the media have to be more than an echo chamber. At the same time, journalists should remember that we all face a common threat from an administration that is hostile to the very notion of freedom of the press. But instead of lamenting Trump’s contempt for the media, the best defense is to get to work and prove that watchdog journalists committed to digging up the truth still have a vital role to play in our democracy.
Indeed, if Trump’s news conference last week taught us anything, it’s that he intends to deploy the same strategy against the media that he used so ruthlessly with voters during the campaign: divide and conquer. As journalists, we can’t allow him to pit us against one another. If he succeeds, it will become even more difficult to defend the American people’s right to know.